Hundreds of the world’s top websites routinely track a user’s every keystroke, mouse movement and input into a web form – even before it’s submitted or later abandoned, according to the results of a study from researchers at Princeton University.
And there’s a nasty side-effect: personal identifiable data, such as medical information, passwords and credit card details, could be revealed when users surf the web – without them knowing that companies are monitoring their browsing behaviour. It’s a situation that should alarm anyone who cares about their privacy.
The Princeton researchers found it was difficult to redact personally identifiable information from browsing behaviour records – even, in some instances, when users have switched on privacy settings such as Do Not Track.
In this guest post Lorna Woods, Professor of Internet Law at the University of Essex, provides an analysis on the new ECJ opinion . This post first appeared on the blog of Steve Peers, Professor of EU, Human Rights and World Trade Law at the University of Essex.
Who is responsible for data protection law compliance on Facebook fan sites? That issue is analysed in a recent opinion of an ECJ Advocate-General, in the case of Wirtschaftsakademie (full title: Unabhängiges Landeszentrum für Datenschutz Schleswig-Holstein v Wirtschaftsakademie Schleswig-Holstein GmbH, in the presence of Facebook Ireland Ltd, Vertreter des Bundesinteresses beim Bundesverwaltungsgericht).
This case is one more in a line of cases dealing specifically with the jurisdiction of national data protection supervisory authorities, a line of reasoning which seems to operate separately from the Brussels I Recast Regulation, which concerns jurisdiction of courts over civil and commercial disputes. While this is an Advocate-General’s opinion, and therefore not binding on the Court, if followed by the Court it would consolidates the Court’s prior broad interpretation of the Data Protection Directive. While this might be the headline, it is worth considering a perhaps overlooked element of the data-economy: the role of the content provider in providing individuals whose data is harvested.
Readers of the Information and Law Policy Centre blog are invited to submit a call for papers for the Global Fake News and Defamation Symposium on the theme of ‘Fake News and Weaponized Defamation: Global Perspectives’
The notion of “fake news” has gained great currency in global popular culture in the wake of contentious social-media imbued elections in the United States and Europe. Although often associated with the rise of extremist voices in political discourse and, specifically, an agenda to “deconstruct” the power of government, institutional media, and the scientific establishment, fake news is “new wine in old bottles,” a phenomenon that has long historical roots in government propaganda, jingoistic newspapers, and business-controlled public relations. In some countries, dissemination of “fake news” is a crime that is used to stifle dissent. This broad conception of fake news not only acts to repress evidence-based inquiry of government, scientists, and the press; but it also diminishes the power of populations to seek informed consensus on policies such as climate change, healthcare, race and gender equality, religious tolerance, national security, drug abuse, poverty, homophobia, and government corruption, among others.
Facebook’s latest attempt to appeal to teens has quietly closed its doors. The social media platform’s Lifestage app (so unsuccessful that this is probably the first time you’ve heard of it) was launched a little under a year ago to resounding apathy and has struggled ever since.
Yet, as is Silicon Valley’s way, Facebook has rapidly followed the failure of one venture with the launch of another one by unveiling a new video streaming service. Facebook Watch will host series of live and pre-recorded short-form videos, including some original, professionally made content, in a move that will allow the platform to more directly compete with the likes of YouTube, Netflix and traditional TV channels.
Lifestage was just one of a long series of attempts by Facebook to stem the tide of young people increasingly interacting across multiple platforms. With Watch, the company seems to have changed tack from this focus on retaining young people, instead targeting a much wider user base. Perhaps Facebook has learnt that it will simply never be cool –, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be popular.
The idea of “screen time” causes arguments – but not just between children and their anxious parents. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, recently compared overuse of social media to junk food and urged parents to regulate screen time using her “Digital 5 A Day” campaign.
This prompted the former director of Britain’s electronic surveillance agency, GCHQ, to respond by telling parents to increase screen time for children so they can gain skills to “save the country”, since the UK is “desperately” short of engineers and computer scientists.
Meanwhile, parents are left in the middle, trying to make sense of it all.
Teenagers in Britain are fortunate to have access to computers, laptops and smartphones from an early age. A child in the UK receives a smartphone at around the age of 12 – among the earliest in Europe. The natural consequence of this is that children spend a significant amount of their time on the internet. Nearly 20 years or so since the first social networks appeared on the internet, there has been considerable research into their psychological, societal, and health effects. While these have often been seen as largely negative over the years, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
A recent report from the Education Policy Institute, for example, studied children’s use of the internet and their mental health. The report found that teenagers value social networks as a way of connecting with friends and family, maintaining their networks of friends, and long distance connections. Teenagers see social networking as a comfortable medium for sharing their issues and finding solutions to problems such as social isolation and loneliness. They are also more likely to seek help in areas such as health advice, unknown experiences, and help with exams and study techniques.
In 1985, in his book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’, Professor Neil Postman warned us that:
‘To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a programme for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral…is…stupidity plain and simple.’
Postman was mainly concerned with the impact of television, with its presentation of news as ‘vaudeville’ and thus its influence on other media to do the same. He was particularly exercised by the co-option by television of ‘serious modes of discourse – news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion’ and the transformation of these into entertainment packages. This ‘trivial pursuit’ information environment, he argued, risked amusing us into indifference and a kind of ‘culture-death.’ Can a culture survive ‘if the value of its news is determined by the number of laughs it provides’?
How has the law adapted to the emergence and proliferation of social media tools and digital technology? Furthermore, how successful has the law been in governing the challenges associated with an ongoing reformulation of our understandings of public and private spaces in the online environment?
These were the key questions discussed by a panel of experts at the Information Law and Policy Centre earlier this month. The event heralded the launch of a new book entitled the ‘Legal Challenges of Social Media’ edited by Dr David Mangan (City Law School) and Dr Lorna Gillies (University of Strathclyde). A number of the book’s authors provided insights into the contents of their individual chapters.
Walden started by addressing the question of what constitutes “press law”. Walden highlighted that for the most part journalists and editors are subject to the same law as most people – there is no special ‘public interest’ defence or journalistic exemption for hacking into the voicemail of a mobile phone user for example. At the same time, journalists abide (to varying degrees) to an Editors’ Code which goes beyond the provisions of the law. In this context, the online environment and social media has rendered press regulation even more complex in a number of ways.
Letting your child use social media is like giving them cocaine, alcohol and cigarettes – all at once, or so we’re told. If you have been following recent press reports about the effects of social media on young people, you may well believe this. But there is no scientific evidence to support such extreme claims.
The real story is far more complex. It is very difficult to predict how social media will affect any specific individual – the effect depends on things like their personality, type of social media use and social surroundings. In reality, social media can have both positive and negative outcomes.
Media reports that compare social media to drug use are ignoring evidence of positive effects, while exaggerating and generalising the evidence of negative effects. This is scaremongering – and it does not promote healthy social media use. We would not liken giving children sweets to giving children drugs, even though having sweets for every meal could have serious health consequences. We should therefore not liken social media to drugs either.
For a claim to be proved scientifically it needs to be thoroughly tested. To fully confirm The Independent’s headline that: “Giving your child a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine, says top addiction expert”, you would need to give children both a gram of cocaine and a smartphone and then compare the effects. Similarly, you would need to provide millennials with social media, drugs and alcohol to test The Conversation’s headline that: “Social media is as harmful as alcohol and drugs for millennials”. But ethical guidelines at universities were put in place so that such studies will never be done.
The diversity of social media
But maybe news headlines should be discounted – as exaggerations are often used to grab the readers’ attention. But even when ignoring these grand claims, the media coverage of social media is still misleading. For example, reports that talk about the effects of social media are often oversimplifying reality. Social media is incredibly diverse – different sites providing a host of different features. This makes it extremely difficult to generalise about social media’s effects.
A recent review of past research concluded that the effect of Facebook depends on which of the platform’s features you use. A dialog with friends over Facebook messenger can improve your mood, while comparing your life to other people’s photos on the Newsfeed can do the opposite. By treating all social media sites and features as one concept, the media is oversimplifying something that is very complex.
Focusing on the negative
Past media coverage has not only oversimplified social media, but has often only focused on social media’s negative aspects. But scientific research demonstrates that there are both positive and negative outcomes of social media use. Research has shown that Facebook increases self-esteem and promotes feeling connected to others. People’s physiological reactions also indicate they react positively to Facebook use.
By contrast, it has also been found that social media can decrease well-being and increases social anxiety. An analysis of 57 scientific studies found that social media is associated with slightly higher levels of narcissism. This array of conflicting evidence suggests that social media has both negative and positive effects. Not just one or the other.
The amount matters
The effect of social media also depends on the amount of time you spend using it. In a recent study we conducted of more than 120,000 UK teenagers, we found that moderate social media use is not harmful to mental health.
We compared the relationship between screen time and well-being. We found that those who used screens a moderate amount – between one and three hours each day – reported higher well-being compared with those who didn’t use social media at all and those who used it more than three hours a day. So, unlike drugs, those who practise abstinence do not appear to fare better.
Recent media reports may have made parents unnecessarily anxious about their child’s use of social media. A flashy quote or headline can often distract from the real challenges of parenting. It’s time the media covered not only the bad, but also the beneficial and complex sides of social media. The effects of social media cannot be summarised by comparing social media to drugs. It is just not that simple.
This event took place at the Information Law and Policy Centre at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies on Thursday, 6 July 2017.
Date: 6 July 2017 Time: 15:00 to 17:00 Venue: Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, 17 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DR Book now: Free event. Advanced registration on the SAS booking site required.
The Legal Challenges of Social Media
Chairs:David Mangan, City Law School, and Lorna Gillies, University of Strathclyde
Contributors include: Ian Walden, Queen Mary, University of London Daithí Mac Síthigh, University of Newcastle Edina Harbinja, University of Hertfordshire and University of Strathclyde Lorna Woods, University of Essex
Social media enables instant access to individual self-expression and the sharing of information. Social media issues are boundless, permeating distinct legal disciplines. The law has struggled to adapt and for good reason: how does the law regulate this medium over the public/private law divide?